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Union boss goes off at meeting, prison guards say

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2011

Prison guards at a Western Maryland correctional facility say a union boss berated and tried to intimidate them after they raised questions at a pre-shift meeting about how their fees are spent and the benefits of belonging to a union.

The guards said the March 11 meeting at the Maryland Correctional Training Center started amicably enough when Steve Berger, their American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union representative, tried to rally opposition to proposed changes in the employee retirement plan.

The meeting took an unexpected twist, they say, when Mr. Berger opened the floor to questions. When asked about the benefit of belonging to a union, why non-union members must pay a fee to AFSCME and whether the fees go into the same pot that helped the union give millions to Democratic candidates and causes in the 2010 elections, the representative launched into a threatening and profanity-laced tirade.

Sgt. Brian Kelley said Mr. Berger pretended to ignore the first question, then shot back at one of the guards making inquiries, "Come on, be a man and say what you have to say."

Sgt. Kelley and several other guards also said Mr. Berger, a retired guard generally liked by current guards at the facility, grew angrier with each new question, eventually challenging to a fist fight a 6-foot 2-inch tall guard who later posed a query.

"At first, I thought it was some kind of act or Charlie Sheen moment," said another guard, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. "We just looked at one another, bewildered. These were legitimate questions. We're supposed to go to Mr. Berger if we have concerns — and he called me a Republican."

The guards filed written complaints and sent copies to state Sen. Christopher B. Shank, Washington Republican, who has asked Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard for an investigation.

Department officials declined to comment on the dispute, as did Patrick Moran, director of the union's Maryland chapter. However, Mr. Moran denied the allegation to the Hagerstown Herald-Mail, which first reported the dispute, and suggested that Mr. Shank is behind the dust-up.

"These allegations were made by somebody with an agenda," he told the newspaper. "Chris Shank has an anti-union agenda."

Four guards interviewed for this story said at least 70 people witnessed the episode and either sent or signed a complaint. They said the incident also was recorded on a surveillance camera.

Mr. Shank said he received about six complaints via phone, email and Facebook from correctional officers, union and non-union, who attended the meeting.

He said that six officers have filed formal reports with the corrections department, and that Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer told him the reports have been referred to Maryland Secretary of State John P. McDonough.

"These guys risk their lives every day in a very hazardous workplace and to be treated that way is just not an acceptable thing to occur," Mr. Shank said.

He said the guards gave him the same account of the meeting, which occurred before the start of the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift at the facility, near Hagerstown. All said Mr. Berger used profanity, threatening language and was "berating and belittling" them.

Mr. Shank said at least one worker told him they were berated after bringing up concerns over the so-called "fair-share" fees, which non-members are required to pay because, unions say, non-union workers benefit from their hard-fought negotiations for better pay and benefits.

Mr. Shank said the little-known provision will require roughly 12,000 non-union Maryland employees to pay as much as $400 annually, allowing AFSCME to collect millions of dollars.

AFSCME, with 1.6 million members nationwide, is Maryland's largest public-employee union with an estimated 23,000 members. The group reportedly spent a total of $87 million on the 2010 midterm elections. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, was endorsed by the Maryland chapter.

State lawmakers in Wisconsin, California and elsewhere have focused increased attention on public-employee unions as they grapple with ways to close budget gaps, including cutting benefits contained in union contracts.

Supporters say Republicans have used budget problems as cover to attack and weaken unions.

Twenty states, by some estimates, approved some form of pension-reform plans last year.

Maryland faces a $1.4 billion budget shortfall and $16 billion in unfunded pension costs. Mr. O'Malley has proposed reducing those gaps, in part, by requiring that state workers with no changes in their benefits to increase contributions to their pension programs from 5 percent to 7 percent — a plan AFSCME strongly opposes and has countered with a request to instead increase taxes.

The guards said that their concerns were specifically with Mr. Berger, and that they were resigned to union ways, largely because unions are entrenched in heavily Democratic Maryland and for fear of losing good-paying jobs, which start at about $36,000 annually.

"I get abused [by inmates] every day at work, so I don't have pay somebody to do that," Sgt. Kelley said.

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